BALTIMORE -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight from a fairly frantic Week 16 in the NFL. ...
• So maybe that's why you let Tony Romo keep chucking it in the fourth quarter, even with his history of game-changing interceptions. And maybe that's why DeMarco Murray running the ball late in the game isn't always the no-brainer it appears, even when the book says that's the right call. Dallas took last week's zany script against Green Bay and flipped it on Sunday against Washington, with the Cowboys extending their drama-filled season and their playoff hopes into Week 17 thanks largely to Romo's ability to extend plays against the Redskins. Even once he suffered an undisclosed injury and started hobbling around in the fourth quarter.
All you really need to know about Dallas' stirring 24-23 comeback win against Washington is that Romo saved the day this time, after Murray very nearly ruined it. Two plays told the story: Murray losing a whopping nine yards on an ill-advised reverse-field run on 3rd-and-goal from the 1 with 1:16 remaining and Dallas down by six, and Romo rescuing the Cowboys and their season by finding Murray from 10 yards out for a touchdown on the next play, a 4th-and-goal with 1:08 left.
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There were no costly Romo fourth-quarter interceptions this time. And while Murray contributed mightily with 96 yards rushing on 22 carries -- with a scoring run and a scoring catch -- the Cowboys in the end were very glad the game was in Romo's hands when it mattered. The mistakes of last week against Green Bay were, if not forgotten, at least papered over by the must-have victory.
Who knows what heroics or heartache await Jason Garrett's maddeningly inconsistent team next week when it plays visiting Philadelphia for the NFC East Division title. But at least the Cowboys (8-7) are going to be there for that showdown, a development that did not seem likely in the second half against Washington, when Dallas trailed by nine points and seemed ready to disappoint its emotionally exhausted fans one last time this year.
The Cowboys epic' 23-point blown lead against the Packers last week at home loomed over everything in Dallas entering Sunday at FedEx Field. With media reports about the Cowboys coaches needing to make the playoffs to keep their jobs (now there's a no-brainer for you), and the alleged tension that exists between Romo and Garrett, and Romo and Murray, it's a wonder anyone could keep all the melodrama straight as we count down the hours toward Christmas. Even in the postgame on Sunday, there was confusion about the exact nature of Romo's injury, with Jerry Jones telling ESPN Romo hurt his back, and Garrett telling the media Romo injured his foot.
There are two sides to seemingly everything in Dallas, but the Cowboys always have our attention and always find a way to keep things interesting. I suppose they've got us all right where they want us as Week 17 looms: leaning in hard and following every blip of news in Jerry World. For the third straight year, Dallas will play a winner-take-all NFC East title game, but this time it'll do it at home, after losing at the Giants (2011) and at the Redskins (2012) in the final week of the past two seasons. The Cowboys are 5-2 at home this season, losing only to Denver and Green Bay in high-scoring games.
If the Cowboys beat the Eagles, a pretty good amount of all the late-season turmoil in Dallas has a chance to get recast and perhaps revisited through the lens of success. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. The Cowboys still have to win that game against the Eagles to make the playoffs for the first time since 2009 and perhaps save Garrett's job. And who has that kind of faith in Dallas these days? The Cowboys handled the Eagles easily back in mid-October, in a 17-3 Week 7 win, but Philly is 6-2 since then, including Sunday night's 54-11 trouncing of Chicago, and should have the momentum entering next Sunday.
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But as these Cowboys have taught us this season, momentum is a moment-to-moment proposition in Dallas. Every time they've had it this year, they've managed to give it back. Sometimes several times over the course of a single game. But this time, Romo made the plays that mattered, and the Cowboys lived to fight -- and entertain us -- another day. For better or for worse, wherever it takes them, Dallas is going to ride with Romo the entire way in 2013.
• What a tour de force performance by the Panthers defense in the biggest game of the year in Carolina, which is fitting given how the Panthers' season has played out. Carolina (11-4) is going back to the playoffs for the first time in five years on the shoulders of that defense, and it was approaching dominance in the 17-13 defeat of visiting New Orleans.
If there are video-game numbers on defense, Panthers linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis had them. Kuechly racked up a mind-boggling 24 tackles against the Saints and picked off Drew Brees. Davis had "only'' 13 tackles, but it was his late first-half interception of Brees that changed the feel of the game, with DeAngelo Williams ripping off a 43-yard touchdown run on the play following the Davis pick, putting Carolina up 7-6 despite little offensive production up to that point.
The Panthers are in the playoffs now, and can clinch the NFC South and the NFC's No. 2 seed by winning at Atlanta next week, or having the Saints lose at home to Tampa Bay. And its defense could make Carolina a very tough out in January. The Panthers got to Brees for six sacks, with defensive end Greg Hardy collecting half of those and two tackles for loss, against rookie Saints left offensive tackle Terron Armstead, who was starting in place of the benched Charles Brown.
The work by Panthers quarterback Cam Newton during Carolina's game-winning drive can't be overlooked, with his 14-yard touchdown pass to Domenik Hixon with 23 seconds left wiping out an uneven performance in which he completed 13-of-22 for 181 yards, with one score and one interception. But this Panthers team will go as far as its defense takes it, and Carolina's formula on that side of the ball is as good as anybody's in the NFL at the present time. The defense will be all the more important in Charlotte if No. 1 receiver Steve Smith's first-quarter knee injury is serious (early reports indicate it is not season-ending).
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• The Saints certainly didn't make the questions about their road issues go away with that 13-point performance at Carolina. Brees didn't deal well with the Panthers' pass pressure, and that monsoon that hit Charlotte midgame didn't help New Orleans' offensive execution.
The Saints did have one tremendous 97-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter to take a 13-10 lead, but they came nowhere near matching the 31 points and four touchdown passes they had against the Panthers in routing them 31-13 two weeks ago in the Superdome.
The loss of rookie safety Kenny Vacarro to a reported broken ankle is one of the worst injuries the Saints could have suffered. He helps set an aggressive and energetic tone for New Orleans, and his presence and playmaking will be greatly missed.
All in all, it was a devastating defeat for the Saints, who now must face the likelihood of making the playoffs as one of the NFC wild-card teams. And you know what that means: hitting the road in the playoffs. That was not the plan in New Orleans this season, after the Saints looked like they were No. 2 seed material for most of the past three months.
• So the Seattle Seahawks can lose at home. The Arizona Cardinals still might not wind up making the playoffs, but they might have given every NFC postseason qualifier hope with that 17-10 upset of the Seahawks in Seattle.
The Cardinals limited the Seahawks to just 192 yards of offense and made Seattle really work for even that. And now the Seahawks have to beat the Rams at home next week to assure themselves the No. 1 seed that appeared to be their destiny all season long.
Arizona improved to 10-5 and won for the seventh time in eight games, somehow overcoming four Carson Palmer interceptions. But Palmer tossed the game-winning 31-yard touchdown pass to Michael Floyd with 2:31 left, and the Cardinals got a controversial Karlos Dansby interception to make the margin stand up.
Suddenly the Seahawks look more vulnerable than they have at any point this season, losing twice in the past three weeks, both times to an NFC West opponent. For a team with a stout defense, like Carolina or San Francisco, going into Seattle and winning in the playoffs looks a little less insurmountable today than it did before Week 16.
• Nobody looked like a bigger playoff imposter in Week 16 than the Dolphins, who went belly up in Buffalo, to the tune of 19-0. If Miami enters the offseason with the knowledge that two losses to the Thad Lewis-quarterbacked Bills made the difference between going to the playoffs and not, it's going to be a long winter in South Florida.
The Dolphins (8-7) could still make the playoffs if they beat the Jets at home next week and get some help via a Ravens and/or Chargers loss, but it's hard to believe that was the same Miami team that produced a signature victory over New England last week. Just imagine if the last-place Bills would have had starting quarterback E.J. Manuel or big-play receiver Stevie Johnson healthy and in the lineup.
• It was ugly for a while there in Houston, but it turns out the Broncos are who we thought they were: the clear-cut No. 1 seed in the AFC, from early September on. Denver's 37-13 conquest of the Texans locked up the AFC West title and a first-round bye for the Broncos, with a road win at Oakland next week (count on it) adding the top seed to Denver's haul.
The Broncos absorbed a blow with the first-quarter loss of linebacker Von Miller to a possible torn left ACL injury, but at least Denver proved during the first six weeks of the regular season that it can win without him. His pass pressure will be tough to replace, but ultimately the Broncos will rise or fall this season based on their high-powered offense, not their defense.
And that offense made another dose of history on Sunday in Reliant Stadium, when quarterback Peyton Manning threw four touchdown passes to shatter Tom Brady's 2007 single-season record of 50. Manning has 51 with next week's game to go, and it was the third time in 10 seasons that record has been broken: Manning did it in 2004, with 49 touchdowns, beating Dan Marino's record of 48 in 1984; and Brady did it in 2007, beating Manning's 49.
• Where has that Colts defense been all season? Indy shut down the high-powered Chiefs in Arrowhead, and maybe the rest of the AFC will have to take Chuck Pagano's squad seriously in the playoffs after all. I know they got the attention of the Chiefs, their likely first-round playoff opponent in two weeks. Kansas City has been scoring points in bunches of late, but the 23-7 Colts' win featured a first-possession Chiefs touchdown, and then nothing.
Indy sacked Alex Smith four times, and picked him off twice. After gaining 59 yards on that first-drive touchdown, Kansas City mustered just 228 yards the rest of the game.
I really don't know what to make of the AFC playoff field after Denver and New England. It wasn't a great day for some of the conference's qualifiers/contenders, with Kansas City losing so decidedly at home, and Miami and Baltimore going down meekly.
• That Rex Ryan sideline tantrum was an instant classic, but he did seem to have a point with that uncalled late hit on quarterback Geno Smith by the Browns. Ryan was probably ticked off when he got to the ballpark on Sunday, given that he reportedly informed his team Saturday night that the "word on the street'' was that he was going to be fired at the end of the season.
I don't know if Ryan told his team of his imminent demise for motivational reasons, or just to shoot straight with them. But I do think he has good information, and will wind up being correct. Even with New York's nice 24-13 comeback win over visiting Cleveland -- a game the Jets trailed 10-0 at one point in the first half -- the bottom line isn't likely to change. New York (7-8) is out of the playoffs, and Ryan is on the cusp of being out of work, with Jets general manager John Idzik being presented the right to choose his own head coach.
• Make no mistake, just making the playoffs again is not enough for Marvin Lewis and his Bengals this season. But Cincinnati did make it a pretty memorable day at home against Minnesota, beating the Vikings 42-12 to pave the way for a three-pack of accomplishment:
-- The Bengals (10-5) made the playoffs when Miami lost at Buffalo, earning a postseason berth for the third consecutive season, the first time they've reached that level of consistency in the franchise's 46-year history.
-- The Bengals clinched their first AFC North title since 2009 when Baltimore lost at home to New England.
-- And the win sends the Bengals into the playoffs on something of a high note, with quarterback Andy Dalton throwing for 366 yards and four touchdowns against a Vikings team that took apart Philadelphia at home last week. The Bengals rolled up 429 yards of offense against Minnesota and improved to 7-0 at home this season.
• Loved the Brad Meester moment that Jacksonville head coach Gus Bradley orchestrated Sunday against Tennessee. The Jaguars veteran center is retiring at the end of the season, after 14 years in Jacksonville, and Bradley made sure he went out with a nice memory. Meester reported as an eligible receiver, and the Jaguars called his number on a 9-yard screen pass, with Meester catching it for a first down, setting up a 14-yard Marcedes Lewis touchdown on the following play.
The Jacksonville crowd loved the move, and Meester, one of the game's good guys, finally got his hands on a ball that he didn't have to snap.